2011 NBA Draft Preview: Evaluating the Top 10 Sophomores in College Basketball
College coaches in all sports often quip that the best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores.
So often is it the case these days, in college basketball in particular, that a student-athlete improves significantly from his first year to his second, from being an 18-year-old NCAA novice to a 19- or 20-year-old team leader.
In my last look at the 2011 NBA Draft, I ranked the top 10 freshmen in college basketball and broke down their strengths and weaknesses.
This time around, let's have a look at the best second year players in the college game, focusing, of course, on NBA potential.
10. Maalik Wayns, Guard, Villanova
In his first year as a full-time starter, Maalik Wayns has emerged as a solid, and at times spectacular, player for coach Jay Wright's Villanova Wildcats.
Wayns, generously listed at 6'1", clearly lacks the size of a prototypical NBA point guard, but sports a pass-first mentality and a toughness one would expect from a guard coming out of the Philadelphia basketball tradition.
Despite being 'Nova's third option at guard behind the Corey's Stokes and Fisher, Wayns has still managed to put up 12.4 points, 3.1 rebounds, and 4.8 assists per game.
Wayns may not be a first-round talent just yet, but his hard-nosed, never-say-die attitude has sparked intrigue among NBA player personnel people.
9. Rodney Williams, Forward, Minnesota
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Rodney Williams is the type of prospect that NBA scouts go gaga over year after year.
The sophomore forward for Tubby Smith's Minnesota Golden Gophers has time and again been stricken with the dreaded "u" word—upside.
At 6'7" and 200 pounds, Williams does admittedly have a ton of upside, with the kind of incredible length and athleticism that has him projected as a lock-down defender and a guy who can explode to the cup virtually at will.
Skill-wise, Williams still has a ways to go, having shown deficiencies in his ball-handling, shooting and overall feel for the game.
Hence, his modest averages of 6.3 points and 1.5 rebounds per game while shooting under 52 percent on his free throws and 12.5 percent on his three-point shots.
Ultimately, Williams has thus far shown himself to be exactly the kind of player who would benefit from more time in school. That being said, if he does come out, look for a team to possibly take a chance on him in the first round.
8. John Henson, Forward, North Carolina
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Speaking of upside, John Henson came into North Carolina as a freshman simply oozing with potential, having shown the ball-handling and face-up skills characteristic of a guard along with the size, at 6'10", characteristic of a dramatic growth spurt.
However, along with that dramatic growth in height came a lack in strength, at around 200 pounds. This deficiency held the young forward back in his freshman year.
This year, with a little more weight and experience, Henson has been better able to show off his true colors on the court, putting his considerable length and skill to work to the tune of 9.8 points, 8.8 rebounds and an impressive 2.6 blocks per game.
That being said, Henson is still very raw and has a long way to go, both in terms of physical attributes as well as skill development, before he can truly capitalize on the bounty of Kevin Durant comparisons.
7. Kawhi Leonard, Forward, San Diego State
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San Diego State has been the talk of the college basketball world thus far this season, having risen to seventh in both polls by virtue of a 14-0 start.
The Aztecs' strong start is due much in part to the precocious play of its biggest star, Kawhi Leonard. The 6'7", 225-pound forward from Riverside, California was not heavily recruited in high school, but has proven to be a star at the college level.
With averages of 15.8 points, 2.5 assists, 9.5 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game, Leonard is a jack-of-all-trades type player, a la Jeff Green of Oklahoma City, with a good deal of craftiness and athleticism to boot.
As SDSU's profile rises through the season, so will that of Leonard, who looks like a solid bet to go in the first round of the 2011 NBA Draft.
6. Elias Harris, Forward, Gonzaga
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At 7-5, the Gonzaga Bulldogs are off to an uncharacteristically rough start to their season, but not for a lack of talent.
The 6'8", 215-pound combo forward from Germany comes loaded with a bounty of toughness, strength and athleticism. As such, he's proven himself to be a proficient scorer and rebounder on the interior, with averages of 11.4 points and 5.7 rebounds per game.
As far as the NBA is concerned, Harris has the look of a front court 'tweener, lacking the size to survive inside and the ball-handling and shooting skills to be effective on the perimeter.
Nonetheless, Harris is still very raw and has the potential to be an impact player on the professional level.
5. Mason Plumlee, Forward, Duke
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A season removed from winning the national championship, the top-ranked Duke Blue Devils are in excellent position to defend their title thanks to a roster loaded with NBA talent.
Sophomore forward Mason Plumlee is far from the least among Mike Krzyzewski's current pack of precocious youngsters.
At 6'11" and 230 pounds, the middle child of the balling Blue Devil Plumlee brothers has impressed NBA player personnel people with the quickness, explosiveness and athleticism for his size.
Like so many young big men, Plumlee still lacks the strength and toughness to bang in the post, particularly at the professional level, making him something of a project, but an intriguing one.
4. Tyler Honeycutt, Forward, UCLA
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Ben Howland has made a habit out of grooming future NBA stars at UCLA, and Tyler Honeycutt looks like the latest in a line of Bruins bound for success at the professional level.
Though slight of frame at just under 200 pounds, Honeycutt has the height, at 6'8", and the skill set to play either spot on the wing. His jumper is still a bit flat and often lacks rotation, but it hasn't exactly proven to be a problem thus far, as evidenced by his team-leading 14.8 points per game on 49.6 percent shooting.
As a point-forward for UCLA, Honeycutt possesses excellent court awareness and passing skills, though he does have a tendency at times (less so now than in the past) to accumulate turnovers trying to make the spectacular play rather than executing a safe pass.
Beyond those skills, Honeycutt's rebounding ability might just be his most impressive asset, as he has the athleticism and the nose for the ball to fly in for rebounds over and around bigger players in the post.
That being said, Honeycutt's strength and defense leave much to be desired, though those deficiencies should be corrected with natural growth and a bit of coaching.
3. Alec Burks, Guard, Colorado
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Alec Burks went largely unnoticed as a high school recruit, despite being the 2009 Gatorade Player of the Year in Missouri, and has continued to toil in anonymity into his second year at Colorado.
Luckily for him, NBA scouts haven't failed to notice Burks' stellar play and, more importantly, the bounty of physical tools that have propelled him toward his accomplishments thus far.
Those accomplishments include averages of 17.1 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.2 steals per game as a freshman, and sophomore stats of 19.0 points, 4.2 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game thus far in the 2010-2011 season.
His gifts include the ideal height of an NBA shooting guard (6'6"), the athleticism to jump out of the gym and shut down opposing players on defense, and the coachability to listen and develop into a more polished player.
Like so many players of his slender (185 pound) build, Burks is a late-bloomer and, as such, has plenty of room to grow with regard to his strength, his shooting touch and his understanding of the finer points of the game.
Thus, though Burks is clearly a player with a ton of "upside," he has shown enough thus far to suggest that he will actually capitalize on his potential.
2. Jordan Hamilton, Forward, Texas
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Another sophomore, another skinny but talented wing.
At 6'7" and 220 pounds, Texas' Jordan Hamilton isn't quite as lithe as, say, Alec Burks or Tyler Honeycutt, and the polish of his body would seem to match that of his offensive game.
Hamilton is a terrific scorer all around with a deadly shot off the catch and plenty of range, as demonstrated by 42.3 percent shooting on three-pointers.
The Los Angeles native has thrived as the Longhorns' top offensive option this season, resulting in averages of 19.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.5 assists. As such, Hamilton has had plenty of opportunity this season to showcase his proficiency for scoring in the post shared by few, if any, wings in the NBA, much less anyone on the college level.
On the flip side, Hamilton tends to struggle in the mid-range and in getting to the cup, throwing up his fair share of contested and frustratingly ill-advised shots. Hamilton certainly has the length and athleticism to be a solid defender, but seemingly lacks the fundamentals and the motivation to excel on that end of the floor.
Regardless, Hamilton's offensive game should translate well to the more wide-open play of the NBA, which consequently bodes well for his draft status.
1. Derrick Williams, Forward, Arizona
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If you're looking for a forward with polish, if you're a team trying to draft a player with plenty of skill already but who gets better seemingly by the game, then look no further than Arizona's Derrick Williams.
At 6'8" and a stout 241 pounds, Williams has the strength and array of moves, if not necessarily the height, to compete in the post at the professional level.
NBA scouts have expressed concerns about Williams being a 'tweener, lacking the sheer size to play the four and the perimeter skills and athleticism to man the three.
And while Williams isn't likely to become a high-flier over night, he has showcased a vastly improved perimeter game thus far in the 2010-2011 season. Whereas last year Williams relied heavily on his craftiness in the post to produce, this year he's seemed to have developed the ability to create his own shots from outside the paint and, more importantly, make them.
Williams is currently averaging 19.3 points and 7.0 rebounds per game as a sophomore for the Wildcats while, more impressively, hitting 63.2 percent of his shots, including a mind-numbing 13 of his 19 three-pointers.
Say what you will about Williams' lack of "upside" and "potential."
He doesn't need either of those things, because he's already a pre-eminently productive and NBA-ready player.